Firefighters were pelted with rocks and bricks and fired upon with a sawed-off shotgun Tuesday night in Benton Harbor, Michigan as they tried to respond to arson fires during a riot.
A total of 21 houses were destroyed and seven others were damaged when rioters attacked Benton Harbor firefighters and prevented them from responding to fire calls, said Capt. Tom Fogarty.
Hundreds of rioters were gathered in the streets in response to the death of 28-year-old local resident Terrance Shurn, who was killed when his motorcycle crashed early Monday during a high-speed chase by Benton Township police officers.
The rioting started Monday and officials expect some disturbances to continue until Shurn is buried next Monday. Fogarty said the worst of the fires occurred between Tuesday night and daybreak Wednesday, and there were another two arson fires Wednesday night.
The captain said it appears that rioters set fire to abandoned houses, and the flames spread to other houses including about seven occupied homes. Rioters also damaged six police cars and caused $40,000 of damage to two of the fire department's three engines.
"We got our ass kicked," Fogarty said. "Our motto is we fight fire, not people."
Fogarty said firefighters proceeded into the riot area Tuesday night because they were not notified that the police had backed out.
"You could say it was an ambush," he said. "When [the firefighters] got fired upon they said 'Hell with it' and pulled away." Someone in the crowd fired several rounds of ammunition at the firefighters, but they were not hit. Two of the firefighters were, however, injured by the flying objects.
"They mostly got bruises on their arms where bricks came through the windows," Fogarty said. Those firefighters are now back on duty.
There were about six fire scenes, many of them involving several homes, that firefighters could not reach Tuesday night. At 2 a.m. one of the fires came dangerously close to a church, Fogarty said, so 150 police officers secured the scene long enough so that firefighters could knock the fire down. They returned the next morning to all of the fire scenes to finish extinguishing the smoldering piles of rubble. If the crowds had let them through the night before, they should have been able to save those buildings, Fogarty said.
Firefighters were particularly dismayed about one home they could not save. "The Reverend's house caught on fire, so the congregation helped him carry his things out to the lawn," Fogarty said. "They sat there and watched the house burn. That's one of the fires we couldn't fight."
Fogarty said the department recently spent half a million dollars on two new engines, and those are the two that were seriously damaged Tuesday night. The windshields and windows are broken, they are dented all over, the mirrors are broken off, and some door frames were damaged so that they could not operate properly. These trucks will remain in service throughout the rioting though, because the department only has one other engine. "You just have to look through the cracks," Fogarty said.
The 37-year fire department veteran said he has seen riots in Benton Harbor before, but this time was different. It was the first time firefighters ever had to borrow spare bullet proof vests from the police department.
"The community has always been wonderful to the fire department," Fogarty said. "They never really attacked firefighters or fire engines. This is the first time that ever happened. We felt slighted, or hurt about that, but the majority of the community is wonderful." He said it was more like the firefighters were in the wrong place at the wrong time, than that they were targeted.
The Benton Harbor Fire Department has 12 members and serves a small, low-income community in an area of three square miles. They received mutual aid Tuesday night from the city of St. Jospeh and Benton Township. Fogarty said the department is beefing up manpower in case of further trouble, so they have every available Benton Harbor firefighter on duty, which gives them eight during the day and ten at night. For now, they will continue wearing the bullet proof vests.